It seems that even though science has come up with an answer for nearly everything, it still can’t account for dreams. What are dreams? Why do we even have dreams? Where do dreams come from? These are all questions that are asked all of the time but still have no concrete answers. Psychology has several different theories about dreams and what kind of effect they really have. The fact that we spend so much time sleeping and answers about our dreams are still so few is quite interesting; also interesting is the fact that science is still trying to answer questions about sleep itself.
While there are still no certainties when it comes to dreams, here are a few of the theories that psychologists have come up with so far to try and explain why we dream. There are a couple of theories stemmed from major psychological theories as well as many others that are based solely on hypothesis and observation.
The Psychoanalytic Theory
First it’s important to note that Sigmund Freud was a major proponent of this theory. The psychoanalytic theory suggests that people’s aggression and sexual instincts are what drive them, and that since these are blocked from our conscious minds, they instead try and come out in our unconscious state. Freud has completed a significant amount of research on dreams, including his book “The Interpretation of Dreams,” where he discussed the idea of dreams being our way of fulfilling the desires that we keep repressed and hidden away. The only way for our repressed desires to come into our awareness is through our dreams, and Freud suggests that there are two components that come into play; latent content and manifest.
Manifest content is what we are actually seeing in our dreams; the images, emotions, and full content of the dream. The latent content is what many seek to find when they dream; the hidden meaning. What, psychologically does a dream mean? Dream interpretation, according to Freud, unveils what your dreams are truly about and exposes your repressed thoughts and desires.
The Activation-Synthesis Theory
Suggested back in 1977, this theory states that dreams are caused by activity in the brain. Robert McClarley and J. Allan Hobson were the psychologists who proposed this theory and they believed that during REM sleep, brain circuits are activated and this causes the limbic system to become active. This system is responsible for memories, emotions, and sensations, and according to this theory, the brain tries to interpret this activity and dreams are what result.
Even though this theory is all about dreams being caused by internal functions, Hobson does still believe that dreams have some sort of meaning. While he does not side with Freud’s theory about dreams being our unconscious bringing our repressed emotions to the surface, he does believe that they are our, “…most creative conscious state.” He believes that even though the majority of dreams make no sense, every now and then there is a dream that we find useful; thereby making our dreaming actually worthwhile.
A Combination of Theories
There are so many theories about dreams that many of them don’t stem from one psychological theory and others propose that a combination of theories are at work. Each theory makes perfect sense – it’s just a matter of finally finding which one is actually right; or perhaps they are all wrong?
One theory that is more contemporary suggests that parts of many theories are correct and seeks to take the best part of each theory to determine how dreams are made. This theory claims that while the anatomical activity in the brain, proven by science, is what creates the activity that leads us to dream it is our personal thoughts and emotions that actually guide the dream.
Another theory states dreams are merely what take place when our brains take in the things that are happening around us while we sleep. As our brain tries to interpret the radio, television, talking, or anything else that is going on while we sleep, we end up dreaming. Most people have had the experience of dreaming about their alarm clock going off only to wake and find that it really is going off. This theory makes sense if you consider it that way, but it still leaves the question of where the dreams we have during complete silence come from.
Yet another theory suggests that dreams are like a personal psychotherapy session. Through our dreams, we are able to openly and clearly deal with personal thoughts, emotions, and issues within the safety of our own mind. This would mean that dreaming really does have a purpose and a benefit; something that more and more theories are aiming to prove.
One interesting theory compares dreaming with cleaning your computer. The dreams tie up loose ends and clean everything out of our minds as sort of a “refreshing” process. By dreaming at night, we clear our minds for the day that lies ahead.
Whatever the reasons for our dreams, everyone can agree that they are extremely personal. Sometimes we dream about things that we can’t even begin to explain and other times we spend days trying to decide what a dream meant. Despite the conflicting ideas between the dream theories, it seems that most of them suggest that dreams really do have a purpose and are even beneficial. Hopefully in time, science will help to prove this idea so that all may know that dreams are not merely a waste of time.
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